The last two decades have marked a period of near-constant change for the United States. As new challenges have arisen and demands on government have increased, however, the public sector has often been in a reactive mode. Government has been stuck in 20th century structures and processes while struggling to adapt to the international, economic, social, technological and cultural changes of the 21st century.
Things are likely to get worse before they get better. Over the next decade, our government at all levels will need to tackle new problems in new ways. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things will fundamentally alter how we work, increasing productivity but also increasing the likelihood of additional economic dislocations. Data about the performance of public programs will continue to grow exponentially, even as public managers will struggle to use it to inform decisions and improve programs. Citizens will expect agencies to effectively respond to rapidly changing circumstances while ensuring transparency and accountability in an increasingly interconnected world.
Dealing with the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges will require difficult decisions amid an environment of public distrust in the government’s ability to effectively and efficiently use taxpayer dollars. What’s more, the bold actions required to address our most serious problems will have to be taken in a society deeply divided along partisan, geographical, generational, racial, socioeconomic, gender, and religious lines.
With great challenges, however, come great opportunities. In 2017, the National Academy of Public Administration hosted a series of in-depth interactive summits across the country focused on “Governing Across the Divide.” Now, we are launching an exciting new initiative, “Grand Challenges in Public Administration,” to identify and address the biggest challenges that government faces through the 2020s.
To kick off this effort, we will seek input from public administration practitioners, academics, students, interest groups, and the general public on two key questions: First, what problems must federal, state and local government address over the next decade for American society to reach its full potential? Second, how must management at all levels of government improve to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of public programs?
We’re asking for your Input and ideas, which can be submitted to the Academy on its Grand Challenges website through April 30, 2019.
The Academy’s Grand Challenges Steering Committee, comprised of distinguished representatives from across the public administration, scientific and media communities, will then conduct a systematic analysis of the ideas and ultimately announce a final set of Grand Challenges at the Academy’s annual meeting in November 2019, as well as on our website and in other publications.
I hope that next year’s announcement of the top Grand Challenges will begin a decade-long process that motivates concrete action across the public administration community aimed at solving these problems. For example, I expect that these challenges will both inspire and focus experimentation, testing and evaluation over the next decade to identify and pilot real solutions. We also might foster new collaborative efforts between universities, levels of government, good government groups, and other private and non-profit partners.
New governance structures and processes grounded in multi-disciplinary, multi-sector alliances could be developed to deliver flexible, responsive, technologically adept and accountable programs. Education and training programs could be updated to help aspiring administrators build entrepreneurial skills that can be applied within existing and emerging bureaucratic structures. Social safety net programs could be modernized to address the reality of economic dislocation in the 21st century. And, universities could lead new areas of research and development to help us understand what works and determine how to build managerial capacity.
Despite the current fractured state of politics and governance, we all have a stake in good government, whether we think it should be big, small or somewhere in between. We all want a government that works effectively and efficiently for the public. We all want a government that provides equality of opportunity, promotes principles of citizenship and civic life, anticipates and builds consensus, and inspires and empowers citizens.
The Grand Challenges in Public Administration is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop and drive an agenda for government over the next decade. No one expects that solving these challenges will be easy. But for inspiration, we need only remember that previous generations won not just two World Wars, but the decades-long Cold War, and put a man on the moon. Our generation of Americans can do great things, too. Nothing is impossible with American ingenuity and willpower.
For this effort to be successful, we need your participation. We ask that you submit ideas—and encourage others to do so. I hope you will join us in this effort.
Teresa Gerton is the President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration (@napawash).